It was a few hours before dawn when Stephen sent for Reeve. Erin and Skar were both already seated in the King's rooms. Stephen made his first point by not inviting Reeve to sit down so she had to stand awkwardly by the door. He made a second by announcing that Skar had already told him of Samson's escape and his idea to go to Lisle on his mother's advice. He even knew about about Skar's speculation regarding the boy's heritage.
"Has he said anything else?" The King looked at Reeve.
"He's still sleeping. Robert's there." Reeve replied.
"Ah so he finished his rotas?" Stephen looked straight through Reeve. "Do you think it's possible that the boy is working for his father? You dare say he's only a child and I'll have you evicted. Children are master manipulators. I used to be one."
"His father killed his mother when she tried to protect him. Samson also told us he'd only seen his father twice and he got very defensive when Skar suggested he looked like his father. He loved his mother a great deal, Sir. I can't see him having any loyalties to his father." Reeve felt quite pleased with herself and her deductions.
"Aaron Cord doesn't work with loyalties, he works with coercion." Stephen stated.
"I suppose it wouldn't be difficult to threaten and bully a ten year old." Reeve conceded. "How would he sustain the threat though? He'd have to be sure of future contact with his son in order for that to work. Once away from the Flatlands, Samson had no intention of returning. He ran away from the scouts. If he was some sort of spy, what sort of thing would he hope to learn? That's a genuine question, by the way, not a defensive one."
"He's right in the middle of the Imperial Castle, Reeve." Stephen heaved condescendingly.
"Only because he brought here as a prisoner. You can't tell me that was by design, there's too many variables that would have had to be catered for. The biggest one was the Rift. Sir he was miles and miles away from Rothsburg, and going the wrong way. He was going to Lisle. Is there anything to spy on there? I've never been and I know nothing about the place." Reeve was having a huge struggle not to yell 'He's a ten year old refugee!'. This whole theory seemed absurd to her.
"I suspect a big Sorcerer presence in Lisle. It's an important City." Stephen frowned. "I have Mages there and they're as discrete as the Sorcerers for the sake of the population. Aaron can't co-ordinate his Sorcerers himself because that would mean him being there." He mused.
"Oh come on!" Reeve blurted and Skar and Erin both cringed. "Co-ordinating the Sorcerers? Would you send a child to co-ordinate your Mages? He'd send an experienced adult, surely, and he'd send one to blend in. Despite Samson's distinctive colouring, even Skar remarked on his likeness to Aaron. Are you saying that no one would notice a ten year old boy making contact with covert Sorcerers while looking like a flame headed miniature of his father? Sir, he'd stand out like a tart in temple, and that's aside from the task being far to advanced for someone of his age." Stephen had no expression on his face at all, which wasn't much better than him scowling as far as intimidation went. "I think it's just how it is, Sir. He hates his estranged father who killed the mother he loved so he made a run for it. His mother has mentioned Lisle fondly so that's where he headed."
"As simple as that?" Stephen stated.
"In my opinion, yes. Having said that, I'm obviously not a politician." Reeve sighed wearily. "I've opened by big mouth over things I'm unqualified for before and regretted it. There's sometimes more to it and unqualified conclusions don't help." Stephen rested his chin on his fingers.
"Skar, would you and Erin excuse me." He said at last. The Mages stood to leave and Reeve tried to follow them. "I don't think so." Reeve grimaced and turned round. "Sit." Reeve sat and tried to stay calm. "What did Skar tell you?"
"Only what he was in a position to tell me. He told me you had a son when you were only young and your mother helped you look after him. Alexander. He told be you were snatched by Sorcerers and returned two years later, alone. He told me you Healed him, then tried to save the King and Queen. He told me you were crowned when you were twenty three. I doubt he'd have told me any of that if I hadn't provoked you into a personal outburst. I'm sorry." Reeve lowered her eyes.
"Me and my mother lived in the slums of Asperdown, the former name for Rothsburg. I never knew my father and he was never mentioned. I was fine with Red so that didn't concern me. I got a fifteen year old girl pregnant when I was only sixteen myself. She left the baby in our woodshed and cleared off. Despite Red's encouragements and thrashing with the besom, I wasn't really keen on fatherhood. Once over she'd lie her arse off to the Watch to protect me but once Alexander was on the scene she'd turn me in just to teach me a bit of responsibility. No wonder I'm unstable." Stephen went to stoke the fire and Reeve was pleased he hadn't seen her trying to hide a laugh. "I suppose it worked. I don't know. Maybe I just started seeing this ... disruption ... as an individual person. Oh and he looked like me too, which helped." Reeve couldn't decide if the King was being serious or not so she kept quiet. "Four Sorcerers took us. Four! They planned to blast me while sourcing from Alexander so I relieved one of his bowels with my gutting knife. They resorted to brute force after that. We were taken to the Flatlands and locked in pens as sources, like animals. I took countless beatings for myself and for my son. I hid him in corners, under dirt and leaves, under dead bodies everytime they came for another source. They didn't take enough notice of any of us to remember what we looked like so I could be selected a dozen times and they wouldn't know something wasn't quite right. I had to Heal myself without drawing attention to it and let those bastards source from me until I was on the very edge of death. One night they selected me and I was taken to Aaron himself. I still don't know if he suspected my magic or he put it down to my young adult age, stamina and strength. Whatever the reason, he thought I was worthy of a Lesson or two. He tried to Force Teach me."
"He ... Sacred Torment! What happened?" Reeve was horrified, yet fascinated.
"I don't know." Stephen shrugged. "He didn't know either. I know it hurt like the mother of all bitches and it almost killed me. I had to sneak the Healing in a few seconds at a time while he slept. The result was a big nothing. I had no implanted or forced spells. I was the exactly the same as I was before he started his shit. I can theorise now that it had something to do with my Healing ability but I don't know what. Most of the spells I can do now are possible because of my Healing but I still don't know all the hows and whys. I was thrown back in the pen with Alexander and two dozen other stock. One evening I couldn't get Alexander out of sight quickly enough and we were both selected as sources. It was the day Aaron himself decided he needed a bit of practice. He went through five sources in ten minutes and it would have killed Alexander in seconds. Aaron recognised me. He decided not to use 'the stubborn scum' as a source, but for target practice. He started sourcing from Alexander. I physically attacked him." Stephen laughed sadly. "Talk about an insane move! I attacked him with a bloody rock! If I thought that was a stupid action, his cronies were more stupid. In the clamour, instead of going for me, they all ran to help Aaron. I know why now but I didn't back then. The Sorcerer's link. I believe Skar told you about it."
"He did yes. Huge design flaw." Reeve nodded.
"Indeed. I grabbed my son and made a run for it. I got as far as the woods when I was lightning struck. I didn't even realise he was sourcing from Alexander until it was too late. He just went limp in my arms and died. He was five years old." Stephen stared into the fire.
"Stephen I'm so, so sorry. You don't have to tell me this if it's too painful." Reeve said through the tears.
"I don't know why I am telling you, to be honest. Not even Skar knows the details of that time and of Alexander's death. Maybe with you being a fellow Healer." He smiled at Reeve and her heart broke. The reason was quite obvious to her. King Stephen Van Roth was a very lonely man. Of course he had Skar who was an unshakeable friend and colleague, but he had no one to share emotions and feelings with. "I ran and hid, ran and hid, ran and hid. I carried my son's body for as long as I could but in the end I had to bury him in a glade. I found out much later it's right next door to a village called Two Hills. Well actually, now it's called The Royal Province of Two Hills even though it's only six huts and an inn. Perk of being King."
"I wish I'd known of all this tragedy before I decided to assume I knew everything about everything. Do you ever go back to Two Hills? I've seen it on a map but I've never been."
"No. I don't feel the need. Alexander's back with nature and he's safe. I returned to the only home I'd known and found out Red had died. She died of a broken heart after losing both her son and her grandson. She'd been buried in the communal pauper cemetary. Oh she's not there now. She's buried in the Castle grounds. I did the only thing I was good at. I Healed one of King Tunrig's Mages. Skar, as it turned out. I followed the crowd to the old palace when news started up about an attack on the King and Queen. I was too late. Tunrig was already dead and Lat was beyond help. I lost them, as well as my son. I decided there and then that the Sorcerers wouldn't win. They'd never win and Aaron Cord will pay for what he did to my son."
"Do you think he should pay with his own son?" Reeve asked cautiously.
"I did at first." Stephen exhaled deeply. "I went to the archives last night. We document all the births here in Rothsburg and I found myself looking at all those born ten years ago. Hundreds of them. I also recognised the names of some of their parents. Jeb Hollis, executed for forcing himself on a twelve year old girl before throttling her. Corris Parr, executed for drowning her three children. Len Kent, died in jail after beating his wife to death. Parker Tomms, killed by another prisoner after throttling four brothel girls. So many, Reeve. So many vile parents that never should have reproduced, but they did. Len Kent's son works in my stable. Kids. They're just kids."
"What will you do now?" Reeve asked quietly, scared to raise her voice incase it altered the King's reflective mood.
"I won't hand the boy over to his father, if that's what you mean. He stays with you." Stephen stood up and rubbed his temples. "As for his father, he can't be allowed to enter Rothsburg. Skar and I have an emergency plan. Don't worry."
"When's the last time you slept?" Reeve got to her feet too.
"Oh about seventeen years ago." Stephen yawned and headed for his sleeping chamber. "Reeve?"
"Nothing. Go and see to the boy." Stephen left her to see herself out.